Arts and Entertainment | Theater

The Pursuit of Meaning: A Review of Summertime

“Here lies the wasteland, peopled with the lonely and fragmented.” Does this sound familiar? For those who have read T.S. Eliot’s seminal poem, the answer may be yes. Eliot’s poem depicts the inhibitions and disillusionment of the people in his wasteland, of those who long for a connection with another but fail to tell one another what they really mean.

I was reminded of Eliot as I watched Columbia’s School of the Arts production of “Summertime,” which ran from Oct. 19 to 22. The production, which acted as the director’s thesis for Robert A. Eriksen SoA ’17, featured a wide breadth of actors from Columbia’s MFA program and the Actor’s Equity Association. A warm summer’s day at Columbia’s Schapiro Theatre was Eriksen’s equivalent of Eliot’s wasteland, where his characters stand isolated from each other as they ruminate on the meaning of and search for love. However, unlike Eliot’s poem, the characters of “Summertime” achieve their quests for that intimate connection.  What makes “Summertime” moving and powerful is the cast and crew’s wholehearted care and devoted tenderness toward the production. One can tell that this production holds a tremendous amount of love for the fate of its characters.

The play opens with Tessa (played by Vanessa Vaché), a young translator, abruptly asking the musicians offstage to cease playing romantic tunes, and determinedly shoving piles of confetti under a sofa. We see Tessa as someone worn down by her past experiences with love. “Love. It’s so complicated—especially what we know now, what we come to know,” she explains with brooding eyes, her stare fixed over a cup of tea she sips.

Enter James (played by Paul Lemonier), a young man soliciting Tessa for translation work. He promptly falls in love with her at first sight, but before he can speak, Tessa’s family disrupts this moment of connection between two characters who, it is clear from the start, were meant to be together. Tessa’s mother, Maria (played by Abby Lindsay), is in the midst of an affair with the dashing Francois (played by Levi Morger,) while her father Frank (Steve Jones) is involved with another man. Tessa’s friend, Mimi (played by Nadia Sepsenwol,) also commands a presence onstage by grappling with ex-lovers; one is Francois; the other, Natalie (played by Genevieve Simon.) The narratives of these characters weave through one another in “Summertime” to culminate in illuminating discussions of life and love.

The characters fumble and strive to form connections with each other, and, in doing so, search for meaning. Time moves irregularly in their story, and discussions lean heavily toward the philosophical and metaphysical. Such self-indulgence in expositions like these usually provoke exasperation and loss of interest in the audience. But in Eriksen’s production, the weight of the characters’ speeches works. This is mainly due to the cast’s nuanced performances—they resisted the temptation to turn their characters into archetypes, and instead breathed compassion and depth into their stories so that when their characters fell, we felt compelled to fall with them. As the father’s lover, Edmund (played by Justin Ivan Brown) says towards the climax, “Human beings are as tough as cockroaches. They can take so much, but at any moment, you can crush them.”

Levi Morger was especially evocative in conveying the complexity of Francis. He modulated his performance from a charming ladies’ man to an insecure and vulnerable person, no more lost than the other characters in “Summertime.” Seeing Morger start with a suave and seemingly impenetrable façade, only to end up crying and writhing infant-like on the floor, is moving. It’s reminiscent of the ephemerality of human emotions, in which no one is “perfect” or has their life figured out. Paul Lemonier also deserves praise for his subtle portrayal of James. Lemonier expertly toes the fine line between magnifying his character’s idiosyncrasies while understating them enough to draw audiences into the character’s realism and ultimately empathize with him more.

As the house lights came up, I caught sight of a woman at the front, smiling through tears. The shift in the atmosphere of the theatre was subtle but still hung over the room—a greater sense of intimacy presided as couples nestled closer together and friends turned to smile at one another with something different in their expressions. A pleasant surprise was the presence of playwright Charles L. Mee himself, who commanded the room before I even recognized him. After the curtain call, he appeared on stage with Anne Bogart, head of directing at the School of the Arts. They were joined by the rest of the cast and crew. Amid the applause, and seeing their sweaty, glowing faces, I was once more moved by the amount of love and care that they had invested into the play. Their efforts were a testament to the bright spirit of “Summertime” and the idea that hope prevails through the chaos of a seemingly broken world. I walked away subdued: quieter, more hopeful, more patient.  

Camilla Siazon | camilla.siazon@columbiaspectator.com

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